Centraljersey.com, January 7, 2013
By Michael Redmond
A 'Lieder' Among Opera Stars
Tenor Jonas Kaufmann will perform a rare recital at McCarter Theatre
IN 1897, when great tenors were far more plentiful than today, the young and still-obscure Caruso had to ambush Puccini into giving him an audition. The composer sat down at the piano and had Caruso sing “Che gelida manina” from La Boheme. When Caruso had finished, Puccini spun around in amazement. “Who sent you to me?” he asked. “God?”

The arrival of any noteworthy tenor these days is likely to be greeted by similar extravagances on the part of thrill-starved opera fans, but this is not to say that where there’s plenty of smoke, there’s no fire. Few tenors since the glory days of Pavarotti and Domingo have been greeted with the superlatives that are raining down on Jonas Kaufmann, the 43-year-old German who will be singing Lohengrin at La Scala, Don Carlo at London’s Royal Opera, and Parsifal at the Metropolitan Opera this season. Last week in The New York Times, Anthony Tommasini did his best to notch it down a bit. “Jonas Kaufmann,” he wrote, is “probably the consensus for the most exciting tenor around right now.” Which is saying a lot by trying not to say a lot.

It’s not all about the high notes, either. This tenor appears to be the total package. He is young, fit, and, as they say, darkly handsome. The praise he has received for vivid characterization and fluent acting has been unusual for an operatic artist. He has exhibited intelligence, scholarship, charm and wit in interviews. At this point he can sing just about anything he wants to just about anywhere he goes.

Thanks to the keen ear of special programming director William W. Lockwood Jr., who sought and won a booking commitment early on, McCarter Theatre will present Mr. Kaufmann in recital with Viennese pianist Helmut Deutsch on Jan. 17. The program will be Schubert’s incomparable song cycle, Die schone Mullerin (“The Lovely Mill Girl,” 1823). The tenor is singing only two recitals in the United States this season (the other is in Vail, Colorado) before beginning rehearsals for the Met Parsifal.

Mr. Kaufmann agreed to answer some questions from TimeOFF via email. Here’s a transcript.

TimeOFF: Opera versus recital, large spaces versus smaller spaces. How does the venue change your approach to performance?

Jonas Kaufmann: For me, the key word is ‘projection.’ Singing without a microphone or any other sort of amplification means that you should be able to adjust your voice projection to the repertoire, the space and the specific acoustics. Of course, a song recital in a small baroque theater requires a different adjustment than performing ‘Die Walkure’ at the Met. But that does not necessarily mean that there is such a rule as ‘The bigger the house, the more voice you have to give.’ Some small houses are very tricky acoustically. On the other hand, when I had my first song recital at the Met, I was really surprised that despite the vastness of this space, it’s possible to create an intimate atmosphere there, acoustically as well as in terms of communication. Some colleagues told me that the acoustics in the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, one of the biggest opera houses ever, are a miracle; they said that even in the last row the most delicate piano (tone) sounds as if the singer is only some meters away. I can’t wait to sing there.

TO: What artistic opportunities does a recital offer you that an operatic role may not? What interests and attracts you most in the song repertoire?

JK: In an operatic performance, you are part of a big team, you concentrate on your part, on the character you have to be. In a Lied (song) recital, it’s just you and your partner at the piano. You can’t hide behind a mask, a costume, a colleague or a big orchestral sound — you are totally exposed. For those singers, who are called ‘stage animals,’ this might be a problem. They feel naked, vulnerable and unprotected. There are no excuses at all, no conductor or stage director who had influenced them, for better or worse. They can’t even put it down to the pianist, because they have chosen him or her. On the other hand, it’s a big challenge. You have to keep the whole thing together and maintain high standards from beginning to end. Without wanting to diminish the worth of great opera singing, I think that Lieder singing is the queen of all the singing genres. It demands a more delicate touch than any other vocal discipline, more colors, more nuance, more dynamic control, more subtle handling of the music and text. And you are absolutely free from all those things which you depend on when singing opera; you don’t need to make any compromises.

TO: You’ve written eloquently about the circumstances by which you developed your authentic voice, through working with Michael Rhodes. Do you have any advice for young singers about teachers? About voice development?

JK: In a nutshell, one might say Michael Rhodes was a kind of archaeologist, and he was the first person to unearth my ‘natural voice.’ So, if you ask me for any advice for young singers: Don’t try to fit into a certain pattern, but always be true to yourself. Don’t try to sound like someone else, but discover your own voice. Which also means that you better accept the instrument you’ve got (rather than) longing to get the voice you’d like to have! Concerning the development of voice: Don’t hurry, don’t push, keep relaxed and ‘let it happen.’ Never force your voice to sound bigger and more ‘dramatic’ than it really is. Always respect the laws of nature. Have you ever heard a gardener snarling at his plants, ‘Now bloom!’? Here you are. Vocal development needs as much time and patience as any other sort of natural development.

TO: What are a few of your “dream” roles, i.e., roles you are not singing but would like someday to sing?

JK: Offenbach’s Hoffmann, Verdi’s Riccardo/Gustavo and Otello. In the verismo repertoire, Turiddu and Canio. Among the new roles which are already planned are Manrico, Alvaro, Andrea Chenier and Dick Johnson. Concerning Wagner, I’d like to go on to Tannhauser. After having recorded the ‘Rome narrative’ last September in Berlin, Tannhauser is on the top of my wish list. But this is, in a Wagnerian word, Zukunftsmusik (“future music,” a clever pun). For the next years I’ll stay with Lohengrin, Siegmund and Parsifal.

Jonas Kaufmann, tenor, will perform with Helmut Deutsch on piano at McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Jan. 17, 7:30 p.m.

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